Housewife: Why Women Still Do It All and What to Do Instead

Image of Housewife: Why Women Still Do It All and What to Do Instead
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Legacy Lit
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"Some women aspired to become a housewife from an early age and are delighted with the role; others were relegated to it . . ."

Lisa Selin Davis's book puts the word "housewife," its history, and its meaning into a new and quite different perspective. How most people view as a "housewife" is not what Davis is talking about in this book. She delves into the history of women and "women's work" and delivers a more nuanced vision of "housewife" and how the word and its meaning evolved over time.

Here's a suggestion for readers who may dismiss the book—because of the title—out of hand: Don't. Davis takes "housewife" out of the mundane and into a world of action and responsibility. This is an approach that has not been explored before. Starting with women in prehistoric eras, segueing into medieval times, and reflecting developments since then and into the 21st century, Davis opines that there is more to being a housewife than ironing and watching soaps.

There was a time, in the not-to-distant past, when a woman, when asked "what do you do," would respond "Oh, I'm just a housewife." That led most women to think the last thing they wanted to be known as was a "housewife." They saw the word as a pejorative term that undermined women's intelligence, initiative, and desire to be "more." And other women who, while aspiring to a life of caring for her children and husband and managing a household would find themselves criticized and dismissed.

The ’60's brought forth a new emphasis on women's rights and becoming a "housewife" was not the goal. However, as far as society was concerned, being a housewife the epitome of every woman's aspirations. Lines were drawn and, as Davis points out, the battle continues.

Throughout history, "women's work" has evolved from being a necessary and essential part of family life to be denigrated as being worthless and useless.

The "little woman" staying at home to care for the kids and making sure dinner was on the table by 5:00 became a stereotype in the 1950s. Post-World War II, women who were the driving force behind the success of the U.S. war effort were fired and shunted back to the kitchen. Suddenly women were deemed no longer capable of doing the work they excelled at during the war. The evidence to the contrary was never considered.

Davis shows negative impact of that imperious action on the women and their children. Through a steady stream of interviews, she asks the question of who "gets to be a housewife, and who's forced to be one?" Those interviews create the essence of the book.

Davis frequently points out that she is a wife and mother and, yes, a housewife—though it seems she's not a very good one. She shares many of the concerns expressed by the women interviewed. In those interviews are women who aspired to become a housewife and are delighted and thriving in the role as well as others who were relegated to it in spite of believing things would be different. She talks about the myth of "housewife v. breadwinner" and how the facts defy that simplistic breakdown.

Some of the stories reflect how class makes difference in the outcome. Working class and middle-income women work inside and outside the home out of necessity. Unlike their wealthier counterparts, they do not have the luxury of choosing whether to work or stay home.

The book's historical discussions are particularly enlightening. Anthropologists are rethinking how they view the concept of hunter/gatherer and are discovering that "early females in the Americas were big-game hunters."

There are also stories of housewives gathering together to protect their families. standing up for themselves and their families. A particularly interesting event took place in 1935, during the Depression, when housewives picketed butcher shops because of price gouging. Within two weeks "as many as 5000 butcher shops may have closed." And the reaction accused the women of being "middle-class" and being "more interested in feeding their egos than their families." Newspapers piled on with a warning that "women's straying so far from demureness and the domicile would result in the family's demise." It's enough to make even the most reluctant reader laugh.

Davis writes that, "Housewife is an archetype, an insult, a dirty word, but most of all it is an enduring idea of what women should do and be." However, she has written a book that stands the notion of being "just a housewife" on its ear. Davis clearly establishes that the stereotype does not fit reality.